THE FOUR WISE MEN is about the

"eternal late-comer," the legendary fourth Magus who missed the stable and had to rely on story for salvation. As the earliest witness of aftermath, the original extra, this wise man stands for all Christendom, 2,000 years of people born too late, for listeners and readers everywhere. The novel is both good story and about the necessity of story--a clever mix of librarianship and Sinbad adventure, lucid surface and theological paradox.

The Four Wise Men is also the fourth novel by Michel Tournier, a French writer to whom I am a latecomer and, to judge from the paucity of his American reviews, other readers may be too. That's unfortunate because Tournier should find sympathetic readers here. In place of the French New Novel's opacities, Tournier creates the kinds of heterodox complexities we appreciate from Barthelme, Pynchon, Coover, and Barth, fictions that shuttle back and forth between popular entertainment and philosophical knots, bookishness and fact.

Tournier's first novel, Friday, translated and published here in 1969, won the Grand Prix du Roman of the Acad,emie Francaise for its retelling of Robinson Crusoe. The Ogre, winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt, employs the legend of the erl king to investigate nocturnal qualities of Nazi Germany. Gemini (1981) is an exhaustive Barthesian/Barthian inquiry into the nature of twinship. These novels have a common, obsessional center -- loss of the innocent double, primal unity -- which gives Tournier's work the shape of a gnomon: a form that remains the same while growing larger. Because The Four Wise Men incorporates elements of his first three books while presenting aftermath in the most powerful of Western terms -- the Christ child missed -- it offers the latecomer a good chance to find out about Tournier.

The three kings of Orient are Gaspar, Balthasar, and Melchior, according to Christian tradition. None is named in the nativity account, and even their number is presumed from the three gifts. In early Christian writings, the Magi sometimes numbered six or 12. In art they are usually three, a frame for and contrast to the new king. Tournier gives these conventional names place, personality, and voice. Each tells his story, the "cold coming" T.S. Eliot describes in his "Journey of the Magi," the alien ways and worship of the road -- travelogue as preparation, testing.

Tournier's Magi are wise as well as observant; each has a sophisticated interpretation of star and child. African Gaspar, in love with a white slave, finds a black baby in the stable and a new understanding of love's opposites: eros and agape. Balthasar is a Hellenized sybarite who sees in Jesus the possibility of art (and life) that combines the ordinary and transcendent. Melchior, a young dispossesed king, comes to know the contradictions of power and vulnerability. Initially Magi of single wisdoms, the three become princes of paradox, pre-Christian posers of Christianity's impossibilities.

Sifted from palimpsests of apocrypha, livelier than their most detailed Renaissance depictions, learned as Persians, these three are, finally, rehearsals and background. It's the second half of The Four Wise Men where transformation -- the characters' and the novelist's -- is most vital and imaginative. Before introducing his fourth, Taor of Mangalore, Tournier skillfully humanizes three beasts: Herod, then the ox and ass, the first attendants in both the novel and tradition. Tournier's Herod catalogues the private evils he has deemed necessary for public order; his confession is prelude to his desire for succession, a limited version of the rebirth others experience. Ox and ass are comic interludes, dreaming ignorance and chattering misunderstanding, the speech of accidental celebrities.

A recipe for pistachio candy is what brings Taor, a 20-year-old prince from southwestern India, on the long and eventful journey to Bethlehem in search of a "Divine Confectioner." Charming but intrepid, Taor arrives with his caravan of elephants and exotica in time to meet the departing Magi and see, while he gives a feast of delicacies to children over two, Herod's slaughter of the innocents. Wandering into Sodom, Taor loses his retinue and takes a debtor's place in the salt mines to save the man's children. Captive for 33 years in Sodom, a city the reader recognizes as the modern world, Taor waits and listens to stories and finally makes his way to a feast I won't disclose, one that ends with a quest filled with sacrifice and the antinomies of sweetness and salt.

While one might safely give The Four Wise Men for Christmas, I don't think the book is an accessory to Christian belief. In Tournier's hands, the legend is Heroic Romanticism: record of the isolation and persistence needed to move backward or forward to innocent communion with the lost. Tournier's novels are about adults trying to find children, externalizations and eternalizations of themselves. Though Taor doesn't make connections with the infant Jesus, by preserving his own childlike trust and charity he is rewarded with what Catholics call the Real Presence, but what Tournier suggests here and elsewhere is a Symbolic Present, the next best thing, perhaps the only available thing for latecomers.

"Legends . . . derive their truth," says wise Gaspar, "from the complicity of our hearts." The Four Wise Men, like Friday, has a deft truth; but both lack the middle two novels' fullness, the sometimes tortured density of observation and metaphor that commands complicity. The language here is often formal and clich,ed, as though apocryphal figures had to speak like Charlton Heston in order to be believed. When Tournier cross-cuts primal legends with the lingo and facts of his own time, as he does in The Ogre and Gemini, he is an ambitious and profound writer, one who shouldn't have to wait much longer for his recognition away from home.